'This is a big step': Union find elusive playoff win with wild comeback over Red Bulls

Eric HeYahoo Sports Contributor
Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) reacts after the first MLS playoff win in franchise history on Sunday. (USA Today)
Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) reacts after the first MLS playoff win in franchise history on Sunday. (USA Today)

CHESTER, Penn. — The Philadelphia Union were just 24 minutes into their first home playoff match in eight years and their fans were already yelling expletives at them.

A sellout crowd of 18,530 had braved miserable conditions of rain and wind on Sunday afternoon at Talen Energy Stadium, only to be greeted by two quick goals by the New York Red Bulls.

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For a franchise with a reputation for losing big games, for coming up short in the postseason, this was supposed to be the year. The Union, for once, were the favorites. They were among the top clubs in the Eastern Conference, earning a coveted home match in the first round.

This team had to break through. And within 24 minutes, head coach Jim Curtin said the plan had already gone out the window.

“Hey Union, wake the f— up,” chanted the Sons of Ben, the supporters group set up behind the Union’s goal. It was loud. It was very audible.

But Curtin listened. The Union listened. And they roared back with three unanswered goals in a 4-3 extra-time win for their first playoff victory in franchise history, with two substitutes playing the role of unlikely heroes.

First, Fabrice-Jean Picault completed the comeback from two goals down in the 78th minute (via FOX Soccer):

And Marco Fabián scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time of the first period of extra time:

Philadelphia will play at Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday.

The Union are now in uncharted territory. Never before have they won a playoff game, a game that actually counted, a game that they needed to win to prove that they are not a team just built for the regular season. Even in 2011, the last time the Union played in the conference semifinals, they lost both legs on aggregate to the Houston Dynamo.

They almost added to the list of playoff disappointment. Trailing 2-0, Curtin felt negative thoughts creep into his head: the questions of not being able to get it done, the fact that they would have been in the playoffs three of four years but come away winless.

“While we recognize now we haven’t won a championship yet, this is a big step forward,” Curtin said. “It’s the type of win that can build momentum for the club.”

The Union overcame a rough first half by goalkeeper Andre Blake, who allowed three goals. On the first goal, he was caught too far out on a shot by Josh Sims from the edge of the box. On the second, he was again caught way off his line on a corner. On the third, he leapt to punch out a ball, but it caromed right to the foot of Tom Barlow for a point-blank tap-in.

As a result, the Union trailed 3-1 at halftime. But nobody had their head down. Nobody pointed fingers at Blake, who has been with the Union since 2014. In the locker room, captain Alejandro Bedoya tapped Blake on the back.

“We’re going to get this for you,” Bedoya told him. “Just keep your head up,”

Promise kept.

Blake didn’t allow a goal the rest of the match, watching his teammates dominate possession, keeping the ball in the attacking third. Jack Elliot cut the gap in half with a goal in the 52nd minute. Picault evened it in the 78th.

It was only a matter of time before the Union took the lead, with Fabián lofting a ball over the head of Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles into the right corner of the net.

“The guys had Andre’s back,” Curtin said.

Curtin held off on starting both Picault and Fabián, much to their chagrin. Picault started 21 matches this season, Fabián 15. But they did not complain, and wound up scoring the biggest goals on Sunday.

In the 72nd minute, with the Union trailing 3-2, Curtin called over Picault from the bench. He told him to switch it up, to make a difference. So Picault entered the match and he calculated his runs. On his second run, he found a perfect cross by Sergio Santos and buried it to tie the match.

“It’s frustrating and rewarding,” Picault said. “Obviously, I didn’t want to be on the bench in a game like today but whatever minutes I get, I want to come on and make a difference.”

He did. And the monkey was off the back of a franchise thirsting for playoff success.

“It’s good to get that out of the minds of people saying that we can’t do anything,” Elliot said.

Philadelphia Union fans finally had reason to celebrate in the postseason on Sunday. (USA Today)
Philadelphia Union fans finally had reason to celebrate in the postseason on Sunday. (USA Today)

In an on-brand moment, Curtin praised the Sons of Ben for swearing at his team. The chant woke up his players, gave them life and energy, and forced out the desperation.

As the tide turned, the crowd was right with them — even as the rain came down, as the wind chill intensified and as the free t-shirts given out to every fan became soaked.

“It was as loud as I’ve heard it here,” Curtin said.

It was fitting that Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” blared from the speakers after the final whistle sounded. With the win, the Union had gained respect. Respect from fans who just an hour earlier were yelling expletives at them. Respect from those who brushed them off as perennial playoff failures. Respect from the rest of the league as a team that has finally arrived on the scene and is not done yet.

And the players who pulled it off, the coaching staff that pulled the strings and the 18,530 that braved the conditions to watch it happen will remember it forever.

“We haven’t had those games where something jumps off the page and stays with you,” Curtin said. “Tonight, you could feel it. That’s something that we didn’t have as a club and now we have it.”

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